Hallowe’en annually is one of the most observed of our holidays, and one of the oldest celebrations Americans keep each Oct. 31.

The roots of Hallowe’en began in the ancient and pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead, and may go back as far as 200 B.C.

The Celts, who once were located throughout northern Europe, in France and eventually centered almost exclusively in the British Isles, divided the year into four major holidays.

According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to our Nov. 1, marking the beginning of winter and Samhain, which is Old Irish and roughly means “summer’s end.”

During this festival crops were harvested and stored for the coming winter, the day being the most significant of the Celtic year.

The Celts basically were influenced by the ancient Druids, who also were centered in large areas of Europe and eventually Britain, particularly during the Iron Age. However, very little is known of the Druids.

From pre-Christian beliefs, the Celts believed at the time of Samhain the ghosts of the dead mingled with the living as all who died during the year traveled the earth into the otherworld.

Celts would gather for this festival observance, lighting bonfires to honor their dead and to aid in their journey. It also was designed to keep them apart from the living.

On that day ghosts, fairies and demons roamed about among a most superstitious world of the living.

Samhain evolved into our Hallowe’en when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people, who predominantly followed the Druids, who were priests, poets, scientists and scholars all rolled into one.

In an effort to wipe out what then was considered a pagan holiday, Christians succeeded only in transforming Samhain. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued an edict on Samhain, hoping to convert the pagan Celts to Christianity. But, rather than stamp out native customs and beliefs, the pope told his missionaries to use these beliefs as a way to teach Christianity.

If a group of Celts worshiped an object, Pope Gregory advised the object be consecrated to Christ and its worship then allowed and continued.

It was a major — and brilliant — concept, a basic approach used by Catholic missionaries to keep the people’s good will. Church holy days purposely were set to coincide with native holy days. The term “holiday” is derived from “holy day.”

Christmas was given the arbitrary date of Dec. 25 because it coincided with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples of the day. St. John’s Day was set on the summer solstice.

Although Samhain totally was pagan in nature and never would mesh with Christianity, the feast of All Saints Day was assigned to Nov. 1, the day every Christian saint was venerated. It was hoped the new celebration eventually would supplant the Druidic festival.

Although it never eradicated Samhain, traditional Celtic deities diminished, becoming fairies and leprechauns of later tradition, particularly in Ireland.

The old beliefs simply never died out, with the symbolism of the traveling dead too strong to be eradicated.

The church, considerably more powerful by the 9th century A.D., again tried to change Samhain with a Christian feast. Called All Souls Day, it was set on Nov. 2 and was designed as a day the living prayed for the souls of all the dead. Again, it wasn’t totally successful in eradicating Samhain.

All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows — or sanctified and holy — continued the ancient Celtic traditions.

The evening prior to the day was set aside as a time of the most intense activity. People still celebrated All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but which now were seen as evil spirits rather than lost souls seeking the afterlife.

The Celts continued to appease these spirits and their masked impersonators by setting out gifts of food and drink.

Thus, All Hallows’ Eve, or Hallow Evening, became today’s Hallowe’en, where people dress up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and go into the night seeking treats.

And, as with some of our ancient ancestors’ pagan beliefs on other holidays we set on our calendars, people still observe this most odd of all holidays — an always uneasy understanding between the old pagan world and the new Christian world that followed.

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Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Visit his column blog at www.tinyurl.com/Column-Blog.

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for David? Send an email to davidc@enidnews.com.

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3rd-generation journalist, Univ. of Oklahoma School of Journalism 1968-1972, OU Sports Information Office, sports editor Sherman (Texas) Democrat, editor weekly Waukomis Hornet, news editor Enid News & Eagle. Retired 27-year volunteer firefighter and EMT.

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